By Andrea Burzynski
Chinese-born chef Ying Chang Compestine is on a mission to demystify Asian cooking and help westerners enjoy some of the flavors and benefits of the food of her childhood.
The San Francisco-based Compestine has published 19 books, including an adult novel and children’s books. Her latest, “Cooking with an Asian Accent: Eastern Wisdom in a Western Kitchen,” offers ways to infuse healthy meals with Asian flavors, minus the obscure ingredients and equipment.
She also folds in Chinese philosophy about cooling, or yin, and warming, yang, foods, and eating according to the seasons.
Compestine talked to Reuters about cultural differences in the kitchen, lessons from her family, and why it is easier than ever to give meals an Asian twist.
Q: You started out as a translator in China. How did you get into cooking?
A: I came to this country for graduate school and I was a poor graduate student at the University of Colorado. I really missed Chinese food, and I started cooking. At that time in Boulder, there weren’t many authentic Chinese restaurants, and I didn’t have the money to eat out either. I started realizing that all those years of watching my grandmother and traveling around China gave me a lot of knowledge that I didn’t realize.
Q: What are the biggest differences between Asia and the West when it comes to food?
A: Our parents and grandparents always talk about yin and yang – it’s almost like it’s in our blood. In the wintertime when it’s cold, no one is going to drink a cold glass of water or eat a plate of watermelon, because it’s cooling … you shouldn’t eat cucumber on a snowy December day. I feel like in the west people eat whatever they want, not really keeping in mind this yin and yang balance. People sometimes get confused … but it’s actually common sense.
Q: Do you find that westerners are skeptical about yin-yang balance and traditional Chinese beliefs about food?
A: Not at all. I find that people are really hungry for this Asian wisdom. You think acupuncture; 20 years ago, you rarely saw acupuncturists. Now almost everyone you bump into is like, “Oh, I’m seeing my acupuncturist.” They’re thinking about taking herbs. I think that people are starting to realize the importance of “we are what we eat.”
Q: You mention that some westerners can be intimidated by Asian cooking. Why?
A: The traditional way when you want to cook Asian food is very complicated and difficult. It takes a long time. Also, everyone thinks you need a wok, but it’s not true. There are many Chinese cookbooks out there that list all the different appliances you need, but you don’t need that in the modern day. You can go to the grocery store and buy pre-washed, pre-chopped vegetables. I rarely use a wok cooking today, just a chef’s pan.
Q: What are some good kitchen staples to have on hand for those who want to cook more Asian food?
A: I think people should stock their kitchen with what is in season. Whatever they sell in the farmer’s market is in season. Then they only need some very simple sauces. Use fresh spices, like ginger, garlic, turmeric, cilantro to flavor their food. Olive oil, sea salt.
Q: What’s your favorite dish to make at home?
A: It depends on the season. In the fall, I’ll probably make a forbidden rice with eggs and almonds. I eat a lot of black rice – actually that’s the only rice I eat these days … It’s good in the cooling season to give your body more energy.
Chilled Cucumber Soup with Rose Petals
2 cups plain soy yogurt
3 Japanese or 1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Small petals from the center of an organically grown rose for garnish
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Place the yogurt, cucumber, mint, lemon juice and cumin in a blender and puree until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Divide equally among four bowls. Garnish with rose petals and mint leaves.